How NASA’s Iconic ‘Earthrise’ Photo Was Shot

“Earthrise” is an iconic photo of Earth rising up from the Moon’s horizon that’s considered one of the most important environmental photos ever made. Here’s a fascinating 3-minute visualization by NASA that recreates how the photo was shot in real-time.

In December 1968, Apollo 8 crew members Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William (Bill) Anders became the first humans to leave Earth and travel to another body in space. While orbiting the Moon and photographing the lunar surface on December 24th, the astronauts suddenly spotted the Earthrise.

Here’s how the conversation unfolded:

Anders: Oh my God! Look at that picture over there! There’s the Earth coming up. Wow, that’s pretty.
Borman: Hey, don’t take that, it’s not scheduled. (joking)
Anders: (laughs) You got a color film, Jim? Hand me that roll of color quick, would you…
Lovell: Oh man, that’s great!

Anders, using a Hasselblad 500 EL equipped with a 250mm lens and custom 70mm Kodak Ektachrome film, first captured a black-and-white photo of the Earthrise.

Anders then asked Lovell to pass him a color film. By the time he got it, the Earthrise had passed out of view from the window Anders had been looking through. But then Lovell spotted the Earth through a different window.

Anders: Well, I think we missed it.
Lovell: Hey, I got it right here [in the hatch window].
Anders: Let me get it out this one, it’s a lot clearer.
Lovell: Bill, I got it framed, it’s very clear right here!
*shutter click*
Lovell: Got it?
Anders: Yep.
Lovell: Take several, take several of ’em! Here, give it to me!
Anders: Wait a minute, just let me get the right setting here now, just calm down.
Lovell: Take –
Anders: Calm down, Lovell!
Lovell: Well, I got it right – aw, that’s a beautiful shot…Two-fifty at f/11.
*shutter click*
Anders: Okay.
Lovell: Now vary-vary the exposure a little bit.
Anders: I did, I took two of ’em here.

Here’s the iconic photo Anders captured at 250mm, 1/250s, and f/11:

Thanks to audio recordings, photo mosaics, and elevation data from the orbiter, NASA was able to reconstruct the story behind this famous photo for the visualization video above. The orbiter was shooting photos of the lunar surface every 20 seconds, allowing NASA to precisely figure out the orbiter’s orientation at every moment.

“It has not been widely known, for example, that the spacecraft was rolling when the photos were taken, and that it was this roll that brought the Earth into view,” NASA writes. “The visualization establishes the precise timing of the roll and, for the first time ever, identifies which window each photograph was taken from.”

Image credits: Video by NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio. Spacecraft model by Stuart Howes. The Blue Marble data is courtesy of Reto Stockli (NASA/GSFC).